Frequent contributor Jon Marthaler has written about virtually every sport in the Twin Cities, and fills in on Saturdays for the RandBall blog on StarTribune.com. He'll cover the professional soccer scene in the Twin Cities, whether at the Metrodome or at the National Sports Center.
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Quick recap of today: Xherdan Shaqiri scored a hat trick for Switzerland, sending the Swiss into the Round of 16 and Honduras home without a point. Iran finally scored a goal, but gave up three to Bosnia-Herzegovina - the first World Cup win for the latter, which also meant that neither would go through to the group stage. Instead, Group F's representatives will be Argentina and Nigeria, though the Argentines beat the Nigerians today, 3-2, mostly thanks to a pair of first-half goals from Lionel Messi. And France were finally held goalless, by Ecuador, though the latter needed a win to go through and could only manage a 0-0 draw.
With that out of the way, let's take a look at how the bracket's shaping up for the knockout round, which begins already on Saturday.
Up first is the South American mini-tournament at the top of the bracket, where the winner of Brazil and Chile faces the winner of Colombia and Uruguay. Brazil, of course, has to be favored there; Chile have drawn the roughest task of all. Colombia have looked exceptional at this tournament, and should be able to beat Uruguay, especially if the latter is without Luis Suarez - but it'll be a big ask to beat Brazil in Brazil.
Next comes Netherlands-Mexico and Costa Rica and Greece, and again, the first team has to be favored. Mexico managed to keep Brazil out for 90 minutes, but they'll have trouble coping with the Dutch. Costa Rica, meanwhile, has an excellent chance of reaching the quarterfinals for the first time in their history, unless Greece can somehow rediscover the ability to actually play soccer. The winner of the Netherlands-Mexico match has to be favored to reach the semifinals.
With four spots in the knockout round to be decided tomorrow, the rest of the bracket remains incomplete. France look good enough to beat a Nigeria side that barely squeaked through a weak group; they'll likely have the winner of Germany and either Algeria or Russia waiting for them in the quarterfinals. On the flip side, Argentina have a tough match ahead against Switzerland, with the winner facing a probable matchup with the winner of Belgium and whoever comes out of the USA / Ghana / Portugal tussle.
This highlights, however, the reason that the USA would dearly, dearly love to beat Germany tomorrow. Winning Group G means a matchup with (in all likelihood) either Russia or Algeria, neither of which holds any terrors for the USA. Win that one, and they'll likely face France, who has been excellent in this tournament but had fairly low expectations entering the month.
Finish second to Germany, however, and it likely means a knockout-round berth against Belgium, who were picked as a dark horse to win the World Cup by so many pundits that they were starting to sound like actual favorites. Make it past Belgium, and it's probably Argentina waiting in the quarterfinals.
It's far too early to speculate on American quarterfinal opponents, of course. They have too much work to do tomorrow, in order to even make the knockout round - never mind actually winning a game. But if you're thinking that you might like a nice tame draw with Germany tomorrow, ensuring that both teams qualify for the knockout round, it'll likely mean a near-impossible path through the knockout stage.
Then again, four years ago, American fans were thrilled to win Group C and land in a bracket with Ghana, Uruguay, and South Korea. Ideas of a semifinal against Brazil or the Netherlands were floated. And we all know how that one turned out.
Right now, our best guess at the semifinals: Brazil vs. Germany, and Netherlands vs. Argentina. But tomorrow will go a long way towards deciding that.
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